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Indie filmmakers go digital

SALT LAKE CITY -- About half of the films at the Sundance Film Festival this year have been shot the low-cost digital way, and 26 percent of them were directed by women. Those two statistics, possibly related, point the way into the new millennium for American independent filmmaking.

Digital production means lower costs. When anyone with a $1,500 hand-held camera can theoretically make a "real movie" that's then snapped up by distributors and plays in theaters, the bar has been lowered a notch for directors trying to break into the film world. That makes it easier for women and minorities. And when those films or their previews can be distributed on the Web, even the definition of "distributor" has changed.

An example from the festival's opening night: The premiere film was "What's Cooking?," a comedy with its serious side, about four Los Angeles families gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. One family is Vietnamese. One is African-American. One is Latino. One is Jewish. After the movie, I met its director, whose name is Gurinder Chadra. She was born in India, raised in London, now lives in Los Angeles. "We made our own United Nations," she said, smiling.

Her movie was shot the traditional way, on film, and now, as she stood in the lobby of the vast Abravanel Hall here, cameras crowded around her. A few were from local TV stations. The rest were Webcams. and HollywoodOnSet .com wanted to talk to her. Leonard Klady of was hovering. All over the world, at least in theory, movie fans were sharing her triumph; relatives in England and India could glimpse her being interviewed on the Internet - probably in shaky, stamp-size windows with jerky sound and warnings of "buffering," but glimpse her all the same.

Waving from over her shoulder, I see a familiar face. It's The Kid. Exactly one year ago, I was accosted by Stuart Acher, a 22-year-old Boston film school grad who wanted me to look at his video, "Bobby Loves Mangos." Uh, huh. I explained that there were 156 movies in the festival for me to see, that I didn't have a VHS machine in my room, that I was running as fast as I could, etc., but The Kid didn't give up.

A few days later, as I was grabbing a coffee in the bar of the Yarrow Hotel, he bribed the bartender to show his movie on the bar's big-screen TV. How could I refuse to watch it? And you know what? It was good. I wrote about The Kid, he got an agent, he made a deal, he's in pre-production.

But wait. You haven't heard this year's update. At the car rental counter in Salt Lake City, I met a guy named Mika Salmi. "We're working with The Kid," he said. He pressed his card into my hands. He's CEO and founder of I know his site. It offers streaming video of short films - kind of a worldwide audition.

"We bought Stuart's film for our site," Salmi said. "He's at this festival working with us. Nobody should have to go through what he went through to get somebody to see his film. So what we're doing is, Atomfilms will have a Winnebago camper here that's sort of a screening room on wheels. We'll drive around town and park outside the theaters and parties. Filmmakers can bring us their shorts and show them to us. If we like them, we'll put them on the Web. Stuart is helping us run the operation."

Last year, bribing bartenders. This year, your own Winnebago. The mind boggles at what the future may hold.

I push through the crowd to The Kid. "I know all about your Winnebago deal," I say.

"I can't wait to show you my new film," he says.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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